Idol (우상, Lee Su-jin, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

Idol poster 1“Getting others to trust something is more important, not what they choose to believe” advises a cynical politician a little way into Lee Su-jin’s Idol (우상, Woosang). Image is indeed everything. Who are you more likely to believe – the slick, seemingly upstanding politician who’s done everything “right”, or an ageing, inarticulate aircon repairman with bleach blond hair? Two fathers go to bat for their sons, if in very different ways, but only one can emerge “victorious” in their strangely symmetrical endeavours.

Lee opens with a voice-over taken from a speech later in the film belonging to bereaved father Yoo (Sol Kyung-gu) in which he confesses that as his son Bu-nam (Lee Woo-hyun), who had severe learning difficulties, grew older, he found himself having to masturbate him to prevent him harming himself trying to calm his sexual urges. Yoo’s words play over his opposite number’s return home from a research trip to Japan. Koo (Han Suk-kyu) is a politician and former herbalist with a special interest in nuclear power. Ambitious, he spends much of his time travelling for business while his wife (Kang Mal-geum) cares for their wayward adolescent son, Johan (Jo Byung-gyu). A panicked text message warning that Johan has got himself into trouble again gets ignored, but when he arrives home Koo knows he has to act. Johan has knocked someone over and rather than take them to hospital, he’s brought the body back home.

A series of quick calculations tells him that the “best” option is for Johan to turn himself in, despite his wife’s insistence that they simply get rid of the body. He drives the corpse back to the scene and dumps it, gets rid of the original car, and then drives his son to the police station before expressing contrition in front of the cameras. That would have been that if it weren’t for Yoo’s dogged determination to find out what happened to his boy, and the fact that Bu-nam’s “wife” Ryeon-hwa (Chun Woo-hee), an undocumented former sex worker from China, managed to escape meaning there are loose ends Koo knows he needs to tie up.

“This rotting smell” Ryeon-hwa exclaims on putting a number of things together. There is something undoubtedly corrupt in Koo’s superficially smooth world of neatly pressed suits and sharp haircuts. Stagnant water swells around him, along with the murky swirl blood, as he contemplates the best way out of his present predicament. Everything here is stained, marked, or scarred as if hinting at the darkness beneath gradually seeping through.

Yoo, meanwhile, perhaps knows he lives in a “dirty” world and though he never claims to be completely clean himself, is fully aware of the implications of his actions. A widowed father, he tried to do the best for his disabled son. He offered him relief in ways others would find perverse in a strange gesture of fatherly love, finally deciding to get him a wife in the hope of putting an end to such degradation for them both only to regret his decision when he realises Bu-nam may not have died if he’d just stayed home. Koo, meanwhile, tries less to protect his son than himself, weighing up that the boy will most likely get a slap on the wrist and he’ll come out of it looking better because he behaved “honestly” and in line with the law. To get elected he will stop at nothing to preserve the image of properness, even if it means he must get his hands “dirty”.

In that essential ruthlessness, he may have something in common with the jaded Ryeon-hwa whose sister warns Yoo not to trust her because “her nature is different”. Like Koo, she has done terrible things but done them to survive rather than to prosper. Her marriage to Bu-nam might seem like no prize, but it was better than the life she was leaving behind and, crucially, a guaranteed path to Korean citizenship assuming Yoo eventually filled in the marriage papers properly.

Yoo just wants “justice”, but ruthless men like Koo who care about little other than image are not about to let him get it, which is why he finds himself trotted out as a superficial ally to bolster Koo’s appearance at the polls in return for Ryeon-hwa’s “assured” safety. In the end, all Koo’s scheming blows up in his face, but, Lee seems to say, the image always survives and men like Koo know how to spin it to their advantage while men like Yoo will always be at the mercy of the system. A bleak, often confusing, noirish thriller, Idol plunges a knife deep into the heart of societal corruption but finds that truth often matters less than the semblance of it in a society which idolises the superficial.


Idol was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Adulthood (어른도감, Kim In-seon, 2018)

Adulthood poster 2Growing up is a funny thing, most of us are content to let it run as a background task while we get on with our daily lives but some of us are forced to contemplate the nature of “adulthood” from a transitionary perspective when confronted with independence delivered at an unexpected juncture. The debut feature from Kim In-seon, Adulthood (어른도감, Eoreundogam) is a coming of age tale but it’s also one about family, responsibility, integrity, and the social fabric as a teenage girl’s attempts to adjust to life alone are frustrated by the arrival of an irresponsible uncle with issues of his own.

14-year-old Kyung-un’s (Lee Jae-in) father (Choi Duk-moon) has just passed away following a lengthy illness. Her mother left when she was small, and now Kyung-un is all alone. The funeral is lonely, and Kyung-un is otherwise unaccompanied, without friends or relatives to assist in the business of mourning. That is, until a good-looking young man suddenly jumps on the bus to the crematorium and bursts into tears. Jae-min (Um Tae-Goo) claims to be the younger brother of Kyung-un’s father whom she has never met. Sceptical, Kyung-un has no other option than to allow Jae-min to invade her life even though she felt as if she was managing fine on her own.

However, Jae-min’s intentions turn out to be less than honourable. He’s a conman and a gigalo who’s forever failing in various scams and deceptions, and despite Kyung-un’s prudent caution towards him, he manages to trick her out of her dad’s life insurance money thanks to making himself her legal guardian on a pretext of saving her from a foster home. Being the clever little girl she is, Kyung-un manages to track her errant uncle down to a shady part of town, but the only way she’s getting her money back is if she consents to become Jae-min’s accomplice and pose as his daughter in order to win over his latest mark, lonely pharmacist Jum-hee (Seo Jung-yeon).

Forced to care for herself from an early age thanks to her father’s illness, Kyung-un is a mature little girl who can manage perfectly fine on her own, even dealing with complicated formalities like submitting death certificates and dealing with insurance companies. At 14 she probably shouldn’t have to do any of this alone but doesn’t want to lose her independence or have her life further disrupted by being forced out of her home and into foster care. Despite her natural caution there is perhaps a part of her that wants to believe Jae-min’s story, even if the other part of her is cloning his mobile phone and going through his bag to try and figure out what it is he’s after.

Jae-min, however, is a selfish man child perpetually chasing quick fixes and conveniently deciding to ignore whoever might end up getting hurt in the process, though it’s also true that he’s not completely unaffected by the pain he causes to others. His moral scruples do not extend to cheating his niece out of her father’s money which is all she has to live on and probably means she will also become homeless seeing as her landlord (who hasn’t even noticed her dad has died) is pushing the rent up. Eyes always on the prize, Jae-min’s dream of opening a Japanese restaurant is real enough and he doesn’t much care what he has to do to make it a reality.

However, when Jae-min and Kyung-un are forced to start playacting family for the lonely Jum-hee, a genuine connection is set in motion. As it turns out, there’s a reason for Jum-hee’s continued aloofness and fear to engage and her interactions with the “widowed” father and daughter do indeed begin to shift something inside her too. Despite all the lying and the natural mistrust, something true bubbles to the surface even if the continued deceptions threaten to push it all back down again.

In the end perhaps that’s what adulthood means, understanding that sometimes people tell the truth when they lie. Kyung-un and Jae-min, both orphans, both lonely, both doing “fine” on their own, nevertheless come to realise that perhaps it’s not so bad to be doing fine on your own with someone else. It’s not perfect, and perhaps it’s not what you wanted, but then that’s “adulthood” for you. A promising debut from Kim In-seon, Adulthood is a warm and empathetic look at different paths to maturity as a little girl and a hollow man bond in their shared sense of aloneness and come to realise that independence does not necessarily require solitude.


Adulthood gets its North American premiere as the opening night gala of the seventh season of Asian Pop-up Cinema which takes place in Chicago from 12th September to 14th November 2018. Director Kim In-seon and actress Lee Jae-in will be in attendance for the opening night screening at AMC River East 21 on 12th September for an introduction and Q&A. Tickets are already on sale via the official website.

Original trailer (no subtitles)